A question often raised on this blog is “What is Jewish identity?” Religious commitment, especially of the Orthodox variety, is easy to understand, but what is a Jewish atheist? Some commenters here have argued that there is really little more to it than a few comfort foods and a nominal holiday or two – and even those are essentially religious. Phil talks about distinctive culture (bookishness, humour, Yiddishisms), values (education, civil rights) and a sense of tribal affinity or kinship. He also talks about an inculcated sense of superiority, which could easily be filed under any of these headings. But how much of this is really “Jewish,” and how long can it last beyond the immigrant generations and their memories of unique (primarily religious, but also linguistic) Jewish cultures in the shtetl, ghetto, melah or juderia? The element of “kinship” might offer some answer, but without specific content, it is just a club?
Rabbi Mordecai M. Kaplan argued (see e.g. Questions Jews Ask [New York:1956], 3-73) that in an age in which observance of Jewish ritual is on the decline and there is nothing particularly distinctive about “Jewish” values or beliefs, the idea of Jewish peoplehood offers the only lasting basis for Jewish identity and Jewish life. In Kaplan’s view, peoplehood includes “awareness of a common history and a common destiny” and a shared set of “sancta” (“texts, heroes, objects, places and events”), while recognising significant diversity between different Jewish groups and streams. Kaplan was a Zionist, and viewed the establishment of a “Jewish national home” in Palestine as essential to Jewish survival in the post-Rabbinic era, although he was more of a cultural Zionist, along the lines of Ahad Ha’am and Judah Magnes. As a matter of fact, he and the Reconstructionist movement he founded had a complete programme for the “reconstitution of the Jewish People,” of which Zionism (without displacing the indigenous population of Palestine!) was only a part.
I see nothing wrong with the idea of peoplehood in and of itself – Shlomo Sand notwithstanding. I also identify with Phil’s feeling that his activism is related, in part, to his concern for his fellow Jews, which is why I am so pained by the fact that “my people” would appear to have put all of its identity eggs in two equally disastrous baskets (a single basket with two compartments?): Israel and anti-Semitism (or more specifically, the Holocaust). I don’t think I need to go into why these two dominant components of Jewish consciousness are so destructive. Let it suffice to say that a sense of ethnic destiny (see Sand) and a culture of victimhood are a noxious mix that can only end badly for Jews and non-Jews alike. So what are the alternatives? Is religion alone (even one in which one does not believe) really not enough? How about the construction of a just and democratic state in Israel/Palestine? Would the very presence of non-Jews “spoil” it all, or would learning to interact in a moral fashion with those we have wronged and oppressed not provide the very opportunity for growth and improvement that we are denied when we view ourselves primarily as entitled victims? The possibility certainly echoes elements of Jewish tradition and the work of modern Jewish philosophers such as Buber, Levinas and Hermann Cohen who were, in turn, influenced by that tradition.
To address a couple of the thoughts raised by Phil’s previous post, I don’t believe there is necessarily a contradiction between considering all people one’s “kin” and having a specific tribal identity – or rather a number of tribal identities. I consider Jews part of my tribe, but I also consider Palestinians part of my tribe, in a way that just doesn’t work for Finns or Indios – as much as I may feel various other sorts of kinship with them, first and foremost as human beings. Second, I think too much is made of the supposed negative effects of Jewish “historical” holidays (Passover-Purim-Hannukah) and the emphasis they place on oppression and salvation. These holidays are and can be filled with so much positive meaning, that the core narrative of the holiday need not have any nasty side-effects that kids (and adults) can’t handle. That is unless of course they are manipulated to serve a specific ideological and political end, which is indeed what has happened in Zionist education in Israel and abroad. As with peoplehood, it’s all about content.